Grace, Gratitude, and a Good Church: Sermon for June 22, 2014

Note: This is the final sermon I delivered as pastor of West Dover Congregational Church.

Philippians 1:3-7

I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me…

533999_485840638098085_190703679_nWhen I was in seminary we talked a lot about how the Christian life is all about grace and gratitude. I could quote that on any test you gave me, and I understood that in an academic sense, but it would be a few years before I really started to understand what grace was, and how to live my life in gratitude.

In today’s Scripture the apostle Paul is imprisoned and he is writing a letter to a church. It’s a church he has grown to know and love, but that he can’t be with at the moment. He writes to them the above Scripture.

Maybe you can see the appeal of this text for me today. Like Paul, I’m about to be far away from a church I love. A church full of people who have shared with me in God’s grace, and a church full of people who have tried to live together in gratitude. And like Paul, as I leave I thank God for you, and I will thank God every time I remember you.

I am heading to a new place. And you know that as I leave this departure changes the relationship we have. I am not going to be your pastor anymore, and that means things will indeed change. But it’s important for you to know that this does not change my affection for you, or the profound gratitude that I feel.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the last four years. Certain memories stand out. I remember blessing a family’s pet pig before she died, and finding the holy in the most unexpected of situations. I remember building bookshelves with one of you, and in the same moments learning to build a church. I remember riding in the ladder truck with the fire department when I served as their chaplain, and learning that being a pastor means loving your community, including guys who are never going to step through the church doors. And I remember you welcoming Heidi when I told you that I had asked her to marry me.

And I remember the harder things too. I remember walking down Main Street in Wilmington after the  flood and wondering what was going to happen next. I remember leaving the Wilmington church for the last time after our final service there. I remember standing here too many times to say goodbye to a beloved church member who had died.

But even in these hard times, I felt God’s grace.

How can one leave this place after all of that and not be transformed for the better? As I leave, I take those things with me, and I take you with me.

As you remain, though, you may have questions about what happens now.

When will you get a new pastor? Will you like the new pastor? Will they be like me?

I can answer that last one. No, in some ways they won’t be like me. Something, maybe even many things will be different. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s a good thing. Because God is already calling to you the person who you need next. God is calling someone with the skills to meet you on this place in your journey, to to help guide you to the next. Even if you are skeptical of that, it’s true.

Do you remember when your pastoral relations committee brought you me as a candidate? Some of you, maybe more than I know, were skeptical. A younger woman who was gay. A first time parish pastor. A Southerner who had never been to Vermont until I interviewed here. Someone who had spent a lot more time around cities than farms. And someone who just couldn’t seem to stop using the word “y’all”.

And yet, you gave me a chance. And together, and with the grace of God, I think we built something pretty great. And with your next pastor, you can keep building on that. You know you can do it, because I didn’t do anything special here. You did the heavy lifting. And you can work with whomever comes next to do the extraordinary things that God already has in mind for you. And the one thing I do know about your future is that God does indeed have extraordinary things in mind for you.

And so, as I leave, I’m going to ask you to do some things I can’t do anymore.

First, I’m going to ask you to stay. Some of you may have come to this church because you got to know me in the community. I’m glad for that. But this church was never about me…it is, and has always been, about Jesus. And Jesus is staying right here.

Second, work together. You are a diverse congregation made of people who have decided to be the church together. You are all good people. And you are all carrying a piece of what this church needs to thrive. Work together to put those pieces together. This church’s future will be blessed if you do. And, look for the ways God is calling you to serve. Are you being called to some sort of leadership in this church? Now is the time to ask yourself, and to ask God in prayer. And now is the time to step up.

Third, keep looking out at your community and asking “how do we serve”. Half of you are new here within the past four years. You came here because someone or something from this church reached out to you. Find the ways to keep reaching out. Find out this community’s needs. Look for ways to help your neighbors. And never forget that this is God’s church, and those who pass through its doors are just this generation’s caretakers.

As we leave tomorrow, I know that you are in good hands. Because you are in God’s hands.
And because God is going to equip you for whatever comes next.

But I want you to know, I’m taking something with me.

It’s not, as we’ve joked, the pews or the tea cups. Or the pulpit. That wouldn’t fit in my car, unfortunately.

No. It’s gratitude. Gratitude for all that I have learned. Gratitude for the cups of coffee at Dot’s. Gratitude for the times you have left me into your home or hospital room and allowed me to share in your life. Gratitude for the laughter we have shared so often. Gratitude for the privilege of baptizing your family, or officiating at your wedding. And gratitude for the fact that each Sunday you let me come up here, and you gave me the great honor of preaching the Gospel in this place.
I will never forget West Dover. I will never stop praying for this church, or for any of you. And I will always do so giving thanks to God for God’s amazing grace in bringing me here. Amen.

The Next Part of the Journey

The Congregational Church in Exeter, NH

The Congregational Church in Exeter, NH

Over the past few weeks I have shared this news elsewhere, but now that the news has been shared with my current congregation, I want to share this here for those of you who follow my blog.

On Sunday, May 4th, I was called as the new senior pastor of the Congregational Church in Exeter, a United Church of Christ congregation in New Hampshire. The Congregational Church in Exeter was founded 375 years ago, and has a rich history of witnessing to Christ’s love in southern New Hampshire. The congregation continues to be vital, and is an important contributor to the Exeter community. This, along with their Open and Affirming commitment, their Eco-Theology covenant, and more drew me to prayerfully consider this call. But it was my meetings with their search committee, and the deep faith and passion for a strong future for the church that they exhibited, that helped me to know that God was calling me Exeter.

Heidi at her seminary graduation.

Heidi at her seminary graduation.

Earlier this month my family had another celebration as well. My wife, Heidi Carrington Heath, graduated with her Master of Divinity from Andover Newton Theological School. After years of coursework, internships, worship services, and ordination interviews, it was a day of profound joy and blessing. And it was also a day of commissioning. God has great things in mind for Heidi. I’ve known that since I met her. And now it will be my turn to stand beside her as she sees where God is calling to her next.

My last day at West Dover Congregational Church will be June 22nd. We will be moving to Exeter the next day, and I will begin ministry at the Exeter church on July 15th. Heidi will be searching for her first ordainable call in the surrounding area as well. In all of this we have both felt extremely clear that we are being called together to make this step in faith, and we are confident of God’s grace.

Signing the pastoral contract after the congregational vote.

Signing the pastoral contract after the congregational vote.

But to be clear, leaving is not easy. For the last four years I have been deeply blessed by the congregation of West Dover Congregational Church. In that time we have nearly doubled in size, we have had a successful Open and Affirming process, we have reached out further to our community, we have maintained the legacy of a sister church who closed, and we have undertaken major capital improvements. It has been an incredibly busy few years. But, more importantly, we have had moments together where I know that Christ was present, and where I know I saw God.

But there comes a time for every pastor when they are called to something new. When that call came for my family it was indeed joyful, but there was plenty of bittersweet there too. We love Vermont, and we love our church. But we also know that God is calling us to the next step. And God is calling West Dover Congregational Church on to the next step too. And for the next part of the journey they will walk with someone else. And for the next part of my journey, I will walk with someone else too. And soon, I know Heidi will walk with a congregation on their journey as well. And God will be with all of us along the way.

 

Getting Our Heads Out of the Clouds: A Sermon for Ascension Sunday, May 12, 2013

Benvenuto Tisi da Garofalo, Ascension of Christ

Benvenuto Tisi da Garofalo, Ascension of Christ

Churches, and their clergy, have sometimes been accused of being out of touch with the real world. Karl Marx called religion the “opiate of the people” because he believed it made us ignore the pains and injustices of the world and look to a pie-in-the-sky heaven when this life is over. And even today you hear plenty of people talking about how Christians are too focused on the next life, and not focused enough on this one.

They might even say we have our heads in the clouds.

Sometimes they’re right. I’ve talked before about how after seminary I did some coursework to get a PhD, and how I ultimately left that program because I felt like I was gazing into the heavens, doing nothing, while the real world, full of real needs, was all around me. And as much as studying theology at the next level had felt noble at the beginning, by the end it felt like I was really missing the point.

The problem didn’t start, or end, with me though. Because from the very beginning of the church, nearly 2,000 years ago, Christians have had to be reminded that they can’t spend too much time with their heads in the clouds.

The first disciples were doing literally just that. On the fortieth day after Easter, after weeks of Jesus appearing to them after the Resurrection and telling them how to be his disciples, he told them that he wouldn’t be physically with them anymore. Instead, he would always be with them, but in a different way. He was returning to the Creator, and speaking through the Holy Spirit.

And after he told them this, Scripture tells us that he was lifted up into heaven and “a cloud took him out of sight”.

In the church we call this the Ascension, which is a fancy way of saying that Jesus is preparing a new place for us now, and has gone before us. But, fancy theological terms aside, can you imagine what the disciples were thinking that day? My guess is that they were all standing there looking up and saying, “Where did he go?” Or, “did that really just happen?” Or, “what do we do now?”

And so, they were standing there, with their heads in the clouds, doing nothing…and that’s when they hear this voice. And there are two men dressed all in white, messengers, saying “Why are you guys looking in the clouds? He is going to come back to you again.”

Sometimes the church needs people like those two guys in white. We need them to call our attention back from gazing up at the clouds all the time and to the world we are in now. And we need them to remind us that we have a task here as disciples of Christ. Because with the Ascension the baton has been passed, we are left as witnesses to Christ’s life and work, and we are called to be the church.

And we won’t get very far in that work if all we do is keep our head in the clouds.

The Book of Acts, the book we read from today and the one that we will be reading from a lot in the lectionary cycle we are following now, is about what happens next. This is the very start of that book. And it’s what happens when the disciples become the first church. It’s about how they go from this small group of people who followed Jesus to a community that grows and spreads and endures to this day.

And it’s worth remembering that it starts with this: the disciples looking up in the clouds and getting their attention called back to the world they have been asked to serve.

It’s really fitting that this passage happened to come up in the lectionary today because today after coffee hour we are starting phase two of our visioning process. This is the part where we sit with each other for the next six weeks and we have discussions about what we believe God is asking us to do, and how God is asking our church to exist in our community.

Our church has had some good things happen to it in the last few years. We are bigger, and we are increasingly connected to both mission and the larger church, and we are looking ahead to a future that I believe will be very bright. But that also means that we are on new ground. And we are having to learn how to be the church together in new ways. And sometimes that can feel confusing and daunting, and we feel better looking up in the clouds and asking, “now where did that guy with all the answer go?”

Those first disciples knew what that was like. Because on that day they were standing there, looking up, and going, “What now?” “Where do we go from here?”

And the answer they got, was “don’t look up in the clouds. Look around you.”

And that’s what we get too. In this visioning process, instead of just looking to the clouds for answers, we get to ask the question, “What is clouding our vision?” We get to ask, what is happening here all around us, in our community and in our world? And then we get to ask, what is our role in it all?

Today’s discussion is about “purpose”, as in “what is our purpose here as a church?” And I’m not going to give you all the “right answers” here about how why our church exists in our community, or how our life together should unfold, because I don’t claim to have all the “right answers”.

But I will say this, our purpose has to do with something more than looking into the clouds and longing after Jesus. And it has to do with more than being a clubhouse for people who believe and act the way that we do. Instead it has to do with helping one another to live out the sort of life that Jesus asked of us, and serving our neighbors in love because Jesus first loved us. It’s a very down-to-earth purpose that we are called to gather around, and that means that it is also a very possible one.

It has to start with pulling our heads out of the clouds, and looking around. We live in what has been called the “least religious state” in the country. We live in a small community that has fewer and fewer year-round jobs and that means a lot less young families. We live in a place where many, if not most, people have to work on Sunday morning in order to provide for their family. And we live in an era where compulsory church attendance has vanished. We live in a challenging time to be the church.

But it’s not the first challenge. The Scripture passage today proves that. But even if you want to get a little closer to home, in both time and place, there are other examples too.

Last fall I was given an excerpt from a letter written by a “George Mann” to his friend “Rice”. The date was August 6, 1858, 155 years ago. And the place was West Dover, Vermont. That summer, the church, this building we are sitting in now, was being built.

And I don’t know much about Mr. Mann, but he didn’t have a whole lot of faith in either the future of this church or of Dover in general. He wrote to his friend,

“The meeting house advances towards completion slowly – the steeple is on it looks majestic – they have money enough subscribed to purchase a bell I think – os you see we shall soon be cheered weekly by the tones of “Sweet Sabbath Bell” – but I fear it will not have the power to bring out to church all the wicked, hardened “non church going” sinners of this wicked place”. He underlined that last part for emphasis.

Mr. Mann, whoever he was, was wrong. Because 155 years later you and I are sitting in this sanctuary. And the community outside our doors is not full of “wicked, hardened” people, and it is not a “wicked place”. It’s a good place, filled with good people, church-goers or not. Everything else has changed, except that, and except the fact that our church bell still tolls every week, not just welcoming our neighbors, but reminding us to serve them.

As much as those two men reminded the disciples to take their heads out of the clouds, that bell reminds us to stop looking up, and start looking out. To keep serving our neighbors, and to keep spreading God’s love to our community. We’ve been doing it for 155 years. But we’re just kids, in the big scheme of things. The church has been doing it for nearly 2000 now. And somehow, by the grace of God, it’s still going. I think that means that God has a purpose for us yet. Amen.

The First of the Resurrections: A sermon for Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013

150400_10100264762650368_2031715009_nAlleluia, Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed, and on Easter morning we are filled with reminders of resurrection and new life. There’s music, and flowers, an Easter egg hunt, and more. On Easter morning we are filled with joy, and filled with hope.

But it is such a contrast from what was happening here in this sanctuary just two nights ago. Good Friday is the most somber day of the church year. No music, no candles, no flowers. We told the story of Christ’s betrayal and death. And then we prayed and left in silence.

Good Friday is about the worst that the world can do. And on Friday we prayed for the pain of the world. We took turns lifting up and naming the things that make this world so hard: war, addiction, abuse, environmental concerns, bullying, oppression. We named them one by one, and then we sat in silence, and prayed for a better world.

And today we come back. We come back because we believe that Good Friday doesn’t have the last word. We come back because as much as we live in a broken world, we believe that something better is possible. We come back because we want to see resurrection for ourselves.

On the first Easter morning nearly 2000 years ago, Mary went back. She went back to the tomb where she and a handful of others had laid Jesus two nights before. She went back because she was looking for something, what she may not have even been sure of.

Mary was expecting to see that tomb sealed up. She was expecting to see the grave. She was expecting to find memories, but not much hope.

But when she gets there, the stone is gone. Jesus isn’t in the tomb. And her first reaction is not, “Christ is risen”. It’s to find the gardner and say “what did you do with him?” Mary thought that what was bad had somehow gotten worse.

But then, something happens. She looks at that gardner again. He speaks to her. And her eyes are opened, and she knows it’s him.

What Mary saw that day was more than unexpected. It was improbable.  It was resurrection.

Now, you and I, we may not have literally stood outside an empty tomb. We may not have seen Jesus literally rise from the grave. But that doesn’t mean that we are not also witnesses to the resurrection.

When Jesus rose again, it was more than a man being raised from the dead. It was the triumph of love over the worst that the world could do. It was proof that in the end love wins. It was the first resurrection of many, and, even more spectacular, you and I have seen some of them.

You see, resurrection comes in many forms. And if we dare, like Mary, to go to the hardest and most broken places in our lives, we will see it too.

A year and a half ago, Hurricane Irene swept through our Valley. A few days ago I was looking at pictures of the destruction. And then yesterday I drove over those same roads and went into some of those same buildings. A community has rebuilt itself. That is resurrection.

A man I know had been bullied repeatedly as a high school student years before. He had endured slurs and name-calling day in and out until the point he thought he just couldn’t take it anymore. And yet, he found a way to keep going. And now he works to reach out to kids like him who are going through the same things, and to give them hope. That is resurrection.

A woman I know found herself slipping deeper and deeper into addiction. The more she tried to stop drinking, the more she wanted to drink. She though she was hopeless. But one day she walked into a room full of people who had all faced the same thing, and she sat and listened to their stories, and she told them hers. And for several years now, she has been sober. That is resurrection.

Chances are, you know a few stories about resurrection too. Ether you’ve lived them, or you’ve seen them. And if you have, you can’t help but be transformed by them.

When Mary saw that Jesus lived once more, she couldn’t keep it to herself. Scripture tells us she had to go and tell everyone. She was the first one to see it, and the first one to proclaim it.

I don’t think we are all that different. When we see a story of new life, when we see a story of love triumphing over hate or ignorance or fear or violence, we can’t help but tell it. We share it with each other. It goes viral in our conversations, over telephone lines, and on our Facebook lines. When we see a story that inspires us, it becomes a resurrection story, and we can’t keep quiet.

And that’s what being a Christian is about. It’s about believing in a resurrection so incredible that you can’t keep quiet. You have to show the world what you have seen.

Now, I don’t mean by that that you need to be beating everyone over the head with a Bible, or shouting from a street corner. Really, if you want to be a good witness to the resurrection, you probably don’t even need to do a whole lot of talking. In order to show the world what you have seen, you have to do something much harder. You have to live it.

There’s a quite attributed to St. Francis. He probably didn’t say these words, but he said something pretty close, and in the same spirit: Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.

He was right. It’s not enough to just tell the world what you know. You have to actually live your life in a way that shows that you believe it. You can’t claim to believe in the triumph of God’s love over a Good Friday world and then live as though the deck is stacked, and as though you can’t do anything to change it. You can’t say you believe in the triumph of love on Sunday morning, but then live like you don’t the rest of the week.

Instead, you can choose this. You can choose to preach the Easter story, not just today, but everyday. You can choose to cultivate hope, to encourage transformation, to stand alongside the oppressed, to work for justice, to side with the powerless, and to bind up the brokenhearted. You can choose to give the best of yourself to the God whose love was to great to be contained by the tomb, and not to a culture that tells you the tomb is the final word.

Between this Easter, and next Easter, you can be a witness to the Resurrection, and you can witness more resurrections than you could ever believe. Because if you look at the world with Resurrection eyes, you’ll find that resurrection is everywhere. Maybe even in yourself.

We are a world in need of new life. We are a world in need of love. We are a world in need of resurrection. And who better to help than the people who believe in the one who was Resurrected?

That’s our job as Christians. Deep in our hearts, we know that. We know that, or else we wouldn’t be here today.

There is a world waiting for the stones to be rolled away. And it’s time to go out and meet Christ in it. In our hearts. In our homes. In our communities. And in our world. New life is coming. And it starts with him.

Alleluia, Christ is risen…

In the Wilderness with Jesus: Sermon for 17 February 2013

58843_10151249313981787_219319825_nIf you watch carefully in church, the colors here change. Two Sundays ago I stood up here wearing a green stole. Last week it was white. And today it’s purple. And it’s going to be purple from now until Easter. Then it will be white again. (And then red. And then green.)

We clergy sometimes assume that people just know what we are doing. But, I’m reminded that when I first really started going to church I thought that the clergy just sort of wore whatever they wanted on Sunday. Like, they were color coordinating with their shirt, or pants. So, I thought I’d talk a little about why I’m wearing purple today, and what it signifies.

I put the purple on Wednesday night, as we held our Ash Wednesday service here. That same night we put up our Lenten banner, and we received the ashes that symbolize the start of Lent. The purple in the stoles that clergy wear this time of year is a reminder penitence, or mourning, or suffering. We come before God looking for reconciliation, and we follow the journey of Jesus as he was tested, and tried, and ultimately killed for who he was.

Purple is a reminder of what the season is about. It signifies the bigger story. A story that today takes us to this Gospel reading and to Jesus and to the wilderness. Scripture tells us that Jesus went out into the wilderness for forty days, like our forty days of Lent, and there he fasted and was “tempted by the devil”.

As the story goes, Jesus was put to a test. First he was asked, “if you’re so hungry, why don’t you turn this stone into some bread?” But Jesus resists and says, “you don’t live by bread alone.” Then, Jesus is taken up to a high place and looks down on all the world and is told, “You know, if you worship me, I’ll give you all of this.” But Jesus says, “Worship God alone…and serve God alone.” Finally, he is taken up to the top of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the adversary says to him, “If you’re really the son of God…throw yourself off the roof. God will save you.” But Jesus says, “don’t put God to the test”. And after that, the adversary, the devil, left him alone until, as Scripture tells us, “an opportune time”.

Forty days of wrestling in the wilderness. Forty days of fasting and refocusing. Forty days of being tested and tempted and being offered an easier way. And at the end of it, Jesus emerges, and he faces even greater challenges.

You and I know how the story goes from here. We know we are journeying towards Easter. But that also means that know that we are about to journey to the cross. Theologians debate whether or not Jesus knew that at the time. I don’t know if he knew exactly how it would all go down, but I think he knew something big was about to happen. Something that would test his will and resolve and faithfulness. And so, it’s telling that before that time came, he took forty days and went into the wilderness.

For Jesus the wilderness was literal. He literally went into a place where few went, a wilderness area. Sort of like off the beaten path in Green Mountain National Forest, but without the snow mobile trails and the Appalachian Trail hikers. He was out there. But that wasn’t the only wilderness he was facing. It was a physical wilderness, but it was also a spiritual wilderness. It was a place that few people spiritually dared to go.

You and I are, hopefully, not preparing for a crucifixion. But we are here at the start of our own forty days, the forty days of Lent, and we are standing at the threshold of what to the world around us might as well be a wilderness. Lent seems like a foreign concept in our culture, and not just because of the religious associations.

Who wants to go into the wilderness? I’m not talking about camping and hiking, I’m talking about a real wilderness here. A place where we wrestle with ourselves, and our spirit, and our relationship with God? What good is it? You can’t put it on a resume. It doesn’t earn you any money. It doesn’t really make your life easier. It may even make it harder. So why would you do it?

But that’s exactly what Lent asks of us. It asks us for forty days to go into a wilderness place, and to prepare ourselves for the journey of discipleship. It asks us to wrestle with the hard stuff. To pray. To fast. To do something new. To face temptation and choose to follow Christ anyway.

It’s not popular. Easter morning the church will be full of people, some of whom we’ve never seen before but who go to church twice a year, and I don’t begrudge that. But Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday? Not so much. Everyone likes a party. Not everyone likes setting up for it.

And that’s okay. It’s a personal choice. But for those of us who choose to follow Lent, and who choose to make this forty day wilderness journey, we discover something meaningful along the way: we’ve often been in the wilderness, but now we’ve found Christ there too.

The reality of our lives is that we spend a lot of time lost. We spend a lot of time facing temptation. We spend a lot of time wrestling with God. And, spiritually, we spend a lot of time being alone with our demons. And Jesus knows what that was like. And so in Lent we have the opportunity to spend forty days not alone, but with one who has been here before.

Are you having a hard time with faith? Jesus knew what that was like. Are you struggling to make a hard choice? Jesus knew what that was like. Are you grieving? Jesus knew what that was like. Are you wrestling with demons? Jesus knew what that was like. Are you preparing yourself for something new, something you don’t know how you are going to survive? Jesus knew what that was like too. And I’m convinced that when we go through these wilderness times God looks at us with nothing but compassion and nothing but love. Because God watched God’s own child, Jesus, go through these days too.

Recently the fire department was called to a house fire in a neighboring town. Lots of departments were called, actually. The people were okay, thanks be to God, though the house wasn’t.

I was thinking about the wilderness that day. Most of you know that I serve as the fire department’s chaplain, which is another way of saying that most of the time I just try to stay out of the way. And by the time I got there, a lot of fire trucks were already there. And the house was up this dirt road that most of the trucks couldn’t get up. And so they were running a hose up this muddy, snowy road.

It was at least a quarter of a mile long. And walking up the road we were slipping, and sliding, and sinking ankle deep into the muck. I kept pulling my shoes up out and putting one foot in front of another. And everyone who walked up the road knew that when they got to the top, the hard stuff didn’t end.

But they also knew they weren’t alone. That they had others supporting them, and that others were on the same path.

I think Lent is a lot like that. It’s one of the only places in our culture, and the best time in our church year, where we can say to one another “we are traveling up a hard path right now…let’s do it together…and let’s do it with one who has been here before…let’s follow him.”

I started out today talking about stoles and the color purple. I talked about how it symbolized struggle and penitence and pain. But there’s something else it symbolizes too. The other side of the picture. Purple has often been called the color of kings, which is part of why we wear it. We proclaim Christ sovereign over our life. Not any other person. Not any other situation or struggle. Christ.

He’s not a typical ruler. He rejects the kingdoms of the world when offered to him. He turns away from domination. He chooses something better. And that’s what I want to give my allegiance to. To the child of God who knew what it was like to be in the wilderness. To a person who knew what it was to feel pain, and grief and doubt. And to a God who chooses us.

In Lent we have the choice to find him into the wilderness, and the option to choose a better way. He’s waiting for us. And so, on this first Sunday of Lent, we choose. Amen.

Don’t Say I’m Just a Kid: Sermon for February 3, 2013 (Scout Sunday)

2012 Scout SundayI entered seminary right after I graduated from college, when I was still 21 years old. And that summer I was called to my first meeting with the committee that would later decide whether or not to ordain me as a minster. I was really nervous, because I was sure I would get asked some sort of confusing theological question, or I’d be asked to recite the books of the Bible or something. I had no idea what to expect.

I the end, the meeting went well. No curveball questions. No unfair expectations. But the committee said they had one concern: I was 21 years old. Wasn’t I too young to know that I wanted to devote my life to God?

It was the last thing I expected them to question me on, because I thought a young person who wanted to serve would be greeted with open arms. I had made this decision so carefully, even throwing away my law school applications to apply to seminary. And I left the meeting approved to go forward, but feeling this sense that I wasn’t being taken seriously because I was young. It’s left an impression on me to this day.

It’s no surprise that we sometimes do not value the voices of young people. We all have experiences of being told we are too young, or of not being listened to. And as kids and as young adults we hate it, and we say we will never do it to others once we are in positions of power. And yet, generation after generation it happens.

The prophet Jeremiah must have known what that felt like. Jeremiah was living in a Judah, a place going through some complex changes. As a people they were deciding what they would worship, and what really matters. And God calls to Jeremiah one day and tells him he is going to be a prophet, which is someone who will tell his people what God wants for them in terms of being just, and being faithful, and turning away from the false things that surround them.

We’re not sure exactly how old he was. Probably a teenager. He was young that when the call from God came, Jeremiah’s first reaction was this: I can’t do this. I don’t know how to speak. I am only a boy.

God answers him, “do not say that you are only a boy, because I am with you.” God goes on to tell Jeremiah that he has been chosen to speak to entire nations, and “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant”.

My guess is that his entire life up until that point Jeremiah had been told he was too young to really matter. He might have ideas and opinions, but he had to get in line and wait his turn. He had to be old enough for them to be listened to. So when God told Jeremiah, “I’ve got a job for you”, it’s little surprise that Jeremiah’s first answer was “oh, no God…not me…I’m too young.”

But you can’t say no to God. At least, not for long. And in the end Jeremiah went on to be one of the greatest prophets of the Bible. So important that he is recognized today by followers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam for what he had to say, even though he was “just a boy”.

I was thinking about this reading this week and I was thinking about why it was so perfect for this morning. For those who are visiting, I’ll tell you what I’ve told the congregation before, which is that our readings on any given Sunday are not picked by us. Instead we follow a calendar of readings called the lectionary, which is shared by most Catholic and Protestant traditions. And this week’s story is about a child being asked by God to do great things.

And it just so happens that today is Scout Sunday. Today we invite the Boy Scout Troop and the Cub Scout Pack that this church serves as the charter organization for to join us in worship for a blessing. We also invite others who are involved in any Scouting organizations, Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Brownies, Girl Scouts, to join us as well, and we celebrate them and ask God’s blessing upon them.

We have all of these young people here, as well as their parents and their Scout leaders and the adults who sit on their Scouting committees, and we have this story of God telling a young person that he is being chosen for something big and something important.

Maybe God is trying to tell us something. Maybe God is saying, “you know, I have some big plans for these young people”. And maybe God is telling us that we should listen to them.

The young people who are here today are sooner than we think going to be responsible for the world that we are creating now. They will be the generation to deal with environmental problems. They will wrestle with war, and with peace. They will decide whether or not to work to end discrimination in every form. They will try to find ways to make sure that their neighbors have enough to get by. They will inherit the world that we leave to them.

Which is all the more reason that we who are adults have a job to do. Not only do we have to help to create the best possible world for them to inherit, but we also have to prepare them for their place in it, and for the hard but good work that they are going to be asked to do.

The Cub Scout pack that we sponsor has been having a lot of fun, but they’ve also been learning a lot that will prepare them for the time when they are called to be leaders. They’ve been learning about what it means to be a good citizen. They’ve been learning how to treat others with respect. They’ve been learning, at a very young age, what leadership means and how to be leaders. And we as a church are supporting them in this work because we believe it matters.

My hope is that the boys who are in our Cub Scout pack now will go on to be Boy Scouts. But, more importantly, my hope is that they will go on to be young people who are filled with confidence in their own abilities. My hope is that when later in their life they get some sort of a calling, some sort of a nudge in a particular direction, they will feel ready to accept it, and they will draw upon what they are learning here feel confident.

That’s my hope for all young people, boys and girls, Scouts or not. That we who are adults would be finding ways to empower then to answer their calling with confidence. That we would teach them what matters. That we would give them the skills that they need for a lifetime. And that we would understand that when we hand them something like a pine box derby car, we’re not cut teaching them how to sand wood or put wheels on a car, we’re teaching them that God created them to do the things they never knew they could do before.

In a few minutes we will be saying a blessing for our Scouts, and for their parents, and their leaders. We have Scouts from a variety of religious traditions today, and so we will honor those differences in the blessing. Whatever they believe, today we are going to ask that they will be blessed them and prepared to serve the greater good in their communities.

But if you offer a blessing to someone, that means you have to take part in it too. So for those of us who extend our hand in blessing, we are also making our young people a promise. We are telling them that we will help them to grow. We will provide the resources they need, within our ability. And, most of all, when God calls them to do something new, we will listen to them and we will support them. Not just because they are our Scouts, but, more importantly, because they are children of God. And God calls even the youngest amongst us to do the greatest things. Amen.

When Community Gets Messy (Hint: It always does.): Sermon for January 27, 2012

533999_485840638098085_190703679_nOne year ago this week, do you remember what our church was about to do? Or, I should say, do you remember what our churches were about to do? It was something that was sometimes hard and sad and something that made some of us grieve. And yet, it was also something that brought new promise, and new hope.

A year ago this week, we were preparing for the final service of Wilmington Congregational Church after over 220 years of ministry. But more was happening than a church closing. Things weren’t just changing down in Wilmington. Things were changing here at West Dover as well.

The leaders of this church got together and made a decision. They decided that they wanted to actively invite the members of Wilmington into this congregation, and they even decided to open spaces in leadership on the committees here for Wilmington members. We even brought the Wilmington communion table and sanctuary cross here as a visible reminder of Wilmington’s legacy.

A year later, I get a lot of feedback from outside people who watched the whole process. It’s overwhelmingly positive. They have rarely seen such a positive major church transition happen. And I think they’re right. And I also think they don’t know the half of it.

In the past three years, we have grown in membership numbers by nearly 70%. We have also grown in terms of the thing that really matters: the number of lives we touch. In a way, who we are is not just a merger of two congregations. It’s a merger of three. West Dover, Wilmington, and those who in the past few years, for a multitude of reasons, have come through our doors who weren’t in either of the two.

So what does that have to do with today’s text, a portion of a letter sent almost 2,000 years ago to a church in a town called Corinth? At first glance, maybe not that much. But, dig a little deeper, and maybe this town in Greece and this valley in Vermont have a thing or two in common.

Corinth was right at the center of a lot of different cultures. People passed through it as trade took place between Europe and Asia. They came from different backgrounds, and different ideas, and they were trying to figure out how to live and work together. And Paul writes this letter to them not because he’s angry at them, but because he holds this church dear and he has some suggestions.

And in one of the passages, the one we read today, he says something that must have hit home for a community trying to figure out how to be the church together. He gives them a metaphor. He says that the church is like one big body, the body of Christ, and all of the members, no matter who they are, are members of that body. A body has a head and feet and hands and a heart, and they are all different, they are all parts of that body just the same. The church, Paul says, is the same way. We have people who come from different places, who are good at different things, who have different beliefs, and yet they are all a part of the church. They are all members. And they are all essential.

Paul asks them, what if the body only had eyes? What if it only had ears? What if it only had hands? Paul shows that every part of the body works for the greater good, and every part of body matters.

The same is true of the church. All the members have a place. And he cautions against those who think otherwise. Not only do you never say, “we don’t need you,” but Paul says “those people you think don’t have much to offer…they are the indispensable ones”.

Paul says what we in the church, not just this church but the whole universal church, need to keep being reminded of…we all matter. We all have a reason for being here. We are all just as valuable as the next, and the next is just as valuable as us.

Churches sometimes don’t get this. I sometimes talk to people who have tried to be involved in other churches. And as hard as they’ve tried, they’ve found themselves turned away for one reason or another. And usually it’s not because someone has said “you’re not welcome here”.

Usually it’s a lot more subtle than that Someone makes a comment to them about people who don’t give to the church, not knowing that the person they are talking to isn’t able to give themselves. Or they make a dismissive comment about the AA group that meets downstairs not knowing that the person they are talking to is in the same program. And then, they wonder why that nice person who came for a while never comes back.

That’s sad for the person who leaves, but it’s sad for the community, too. Because they never know what they might be missing. They never know when they’ve cut off their own hands or feet, and cut themselves off from the gifts that God was sending to them.

I don’t know if that has ever happened here. I hope not, but in times of change like we have had for the past year, the potential is high. And that’s not just about us. I’ve been involved in a number of different churches in a number of capacities, and this is the one truth I have always found: community always gets messy. When new people come in, when the way we have always done things changes, when a group decides to keep growing and moving and doing good things, it is never neat and easy and simple. It is always messy. But, if you’re deliberate about it, it can be pretty great too.

For the last year we’ve fallen into this habit, not deliberate and not malicious, of sometimes talking about other people not in terms of where they are now, but in terms of where they used to be. The West Dover people. The Wilmington people. The new people. And we might not mean any harm by it, but we are not three bodies, or even two bodies, anymore. We are one body.

We are the West Dover Congregational Church people.

We are West Dover. It doesn’t matter if you are brand new here. It doesn’t matter if you came from Wilmington. It doesn’t matter if you have been in the same pew every Sunday for the past 30 years. It doesn’t matter if you are 4 years old or 94. You are here because you are a part of this body. And you are just as important to what Christ has in store for this church as the next person. No more. No less. We are West Dover. Period.

So what does that mean? What does it mean to have this body of people from so many different places, with so many different gifts, sitting together. And what does it mean for where we go next?

During Lent we are going to be entering the second stage of our visioning process. The first involved the survey that many of you filled out online. The second will involve talking together over the course of several weeks about where we see the church, and where we want the church to head. And the third will starting to think about our actions. We are deliberately not jumping in now and making decisions because we need this time to keep getting to know the other members of our body, and to listen to what they have to tell us first.

But today I wanted to give you a little foretaste of what is to come in that process. I want to tell you a little about where we are coming from, in your own words. And I wanted you to be able to look around at the church and see that we are not all hands, and not all ears, and not all hearts. We are very different. And yet we have all chosen this place. And we all have a place here.

Of the surveys returned, 77% were from those who had stood up to become formal members of this church. But, significantly, 23% were not. 33% members for 3 years or less, another 8% 3-5 years. 18% were former Wilmington members. And the two most common ways people came here to this church were this: being personally invited, and being a former Wilmington member.

Our commitment to the larger body of Christ was significant too. 33% came to this church because we are a UCC congregation. An additional 43% on top of that reported being committed to the UCC because it is our denomination. Only 7% said the UCC was of little interest.

And where you came from varied. 43% raised in the UCC. But the Lutheran Church. Lutheran, Episcopal, and Catholic traditions tied with 13% each. Geographically, 28% live in West Dover, 24% Wilmington, 21% East Dover, 17% Wardsboro, about 28% live elsewhere. 83% said they wanted this to be a church for the whole valley, and 17% said focus on Dover, Wilmington, and Wardsboro only. But no one said we should just focus on Dover

What you give was also telling in terms of your generosity. 11% give a full 10% of their income, 29% give 5-10%, 54% give up to 5%, and 7% say they would like to give but can’t. What’s amazing is that 0% say they do not wish to give. Everyone who answered that survey had a giving heart.

Now, there were more figures, and I’ll share them at the congregational meeting. But I’ll tell you that in terms of service time, we have our biggest split in opinions there. And, that’s okay…that’s something that we will look at together, deliberately, over the course of our visioning process, valuing each member of our body in that discussion. But, the good news is no matter what the decision, I have faith we will choose a faithful course of action.

Why do I have faith? Because I know the members of this body. And I know you to be the sort of people who can do what many thought was impossible. I know you to be people who a year after a church closure and a merger are creating a new body in Christ’s image. Actions may matter more than words, but sometimes words matter a lot too. Which is why I share these with you today.

I asked in the survey, what difference has this church made in your life? And what do you love about the church. These answers tell us more than numbers do. They tell us about our hearts:

“I love that it is so accepting of everyone that comes through its doors. There is very little judgement from the church as a whole.”

“(I love) the fellowship and love felt when you walk through the doors.”

“This church has brought me a loving community that I feel safe in no matter what I believe or feel or think. I can be myself.”

“(This church) makes me feel part of a larger family that supports me as I support those in it as well as the wider community.”

“(This church has) made me realize the importance to have a “Christian” family to worship with.”

And the shortest answer, and perhaps my favorite. What do you love? “The people.”

And that’s the point. We become the church by loving Christ, and loving one another. If you don’t have one or the other, then you don’t have church. But, I’m happy to report, I think we have plenty of both here. And the future of our body looks very good. And now, let all of us who are West Dover Congregational Church say together, “Amen”.

Water, Wine, and the Places that Need Filling: Sermon for January 20, 2013

We really should have listened...

We really should have listened…

Recently I’ve had occasion to think a lot about wedding receptions. We had a fairly small wedding, family and closest friends only, but that doesn’t mean that planning a reception was easy. You find a caterer, you negotiate a price, you pick a menu, and you stress out about whether or not there will be enough food.

When it came time to get our wedding cake, multiple friends gave us the same advice. They told us that we would be tempted, pressured even, to order a cake that the bakery said was big enough for every person at the reception to get a full piece. Our friends all told us to only order half of that. They said most people only ate about half a slice anyway, and others didn’t have cake at all, so a smaller cake always turned out to be plenty.

We were convinced they were wrong. We knew that as soon as we did that, there would be a massive run on cake that would end with half our guests getting none. And so, we ordered the big cake.

I was thinking about that when I read today’s Gospel. Jesus goes to a wedding reception in the town of Cana, and his mother is there. And she comes up to Jesus and tells him, “they’re out of wine”.

Now, maybe she wanted a glass herself, I don’t know, but the big issue here is not just that no one had wine. It’s that this was potentially humiliating for the couple who had just been married and their family. It reflected badly upon them as hosts, and opened them up to the ridicule of others. The fact Mary pulled Jesus aside was probably because she didn’t want the families to be embarrassed at their own wedding.

Mary already knew that there was something extraordinary about her son. I’m not sure she knew just how much so, but she knew he could do something to fix this. But when she tells him that the wine has run out, his first response isn’t “okay, I’ll fix this”. It’s, “Mom, why is this my problem? It’s not my time yet.”

His mom, like most moms, doesn’t take no for an answer. She doesn’t even respond. She just tells the servants to do whatever he tells them to do. And Jesus, maybe knowing he’s not going to win against his mother, tells them to fill up six large, stone jars with water. And then he tells them to draw some out. And when they do, it’s not water anymore, but wine.

Scripture tells us that when the chief steward tasted it he called the groom over and said “why did you keep the good stuff until now? Everyone knows you start off serving the good stuff and then, once everyone is drunk and they can’t tell the difference anymore, you switch over to the cheap stuff.” Sage advice from the Bible.

But more importantly, we are left with this: the first of the signs of who Jesus was, and this final line “and his disciples believed in him.” Jesus performs many more miracles over the course of his ministry, but this is the first. And it was the one that started to truly reveal to the ones around him who he was.

I confess that I read this a story today and I feel a little anxiety for the newly married couple. We were so worried about running out of food at the wedding, and this was our nightmare. We didn’t want to be embarrassed. That’s why at the end of our reception, despite our friends’ unheeded advice, someone sent us to the hotel with a box filled with over half of our wedding cake. And Heidi doesn’t even like cake.

We were so worried that what we had wouldn’t be enough, that we vastly overestimated our need, to the point that in the end a lot went to waste. Now, this is an extreme example, but I think it points to what we do in a lot of areas of our life. We worry that we don’t have enough. We worry that the cake will run out, or the wine will run dry. We worry that we won’t have enough money, or we won’t have enough time. We worry that our best won’t be good enough, or that we won’t make it through.

We worry so much that we often fail to see that we have more than we need.

Now at this point you might be saying, “but the people in this story…they didn’t have all that they needed. They ran out! This is a cautionary tale about not getting caught with too little.”

And that’s one way to look at it. But it’s not the only way. And, I would submit, it’s not the way to look at it if you want to see Jesus.

Jesus performs a lot of miracles in his life, but as miracles go, in a real way, this one wasn’t all that impressive at first glance. He didn’t feed 5,000 people. He didn’t raise someone from the dead. He didn’t heal the sick. He didn’t do anything that really transformed the world or changed lives. He just helped out a family that didn’t pick up enough wine at the store. Creating infinite wine is hardly the stuff that inspires discipleship.

But like I said, the real point here is not that they ran low on wine, and it’s not that Jesus can make more. If Jesus hadn’t been at that wedding, maybe it would have been a little embarrassing for the family for a little while. Or maybe not. Maybe they would have cut everyone off and said, “look, you all drank all the wine already…you’ve had enough.” Either way, we’re not talking about a crisis.

What we are talking about, though, is this: Jesus was there, and because of that scarcity became abundance.

Asking Jesus for more wine seems so trivial. Like asking Jesus for a parking space or praying that the ball will curve just enough that it makes it through the goal posts. But if you look at the miracles of Jesus, you find a common thread. Every time, the people thought that they had either lost something, or they didn’t have enough of something. They had lost life, they had lost health. They didn’t have enough fish, they didn’t have enough bread. And every time that they thought there was too little, Jesus transformed it and they ended up with an abundance.

This is just a common, everyday example that, if you ask me, may have had something to do with the fact that Jesus’ mother asked him to do it. And Jesus knew enough to listen to his mother.

And it’s an example to us too, especially those of us who are in the habit of buying enough cake to feed a small army. We tend to be the same people who worry we won’t have enough in the places where it really counts. Places like our spirit. Places like our hope. Places like our faith. It’s a sign that Jesus can create something incredible in those places where it feels like we have run dry.

Maybe you’ve experienced that. Maybe you have hit your rock bottom in another way. Maybe something in your life has reached the point of not being sustainable anymore. Maybe the problem wasn’t that you didn’t have enough wine, but that all the wine in the world couldn’t satisfy your thirst.

A lot of us here know something about that.

An acquaintance of mine reached out to me several years ago and told me they needed to stop drinking. They did everything you’re supposed to do. They went to meetings and went to counseling and did everything else. But the hard part for them was the faith piece. They kept being told to have a higher power, and they had grown up with the kind of religion that had, in my mind anyway, probably had something to do with driving them to drink. They wanted to do it on their own. They didn’t need, as they put it, the superstition and religious mumble-jumble. And they wanted to be sure I knew it.

Okay, I said. I’ve always wondered why people single clergy out to tell us why they don’t need God. I think they think it’s going to shock us or offend us or something. But at any rate, I said okay, and that they should do whatever works for them.

But gradually, they started to see that they couldn’t do it alone. That as much as they wanted to reach into their own stores of self-reliance and strength and resolve, at the end of the day they were coming up empty and it wasn’t quite working. Eventually, they opened themselves up to the possibility that maybe there was something bigger than themselves in the world, and maybe that something, whatever they called it, was going to provide the miracle. Maybe in their hour of greatest need, that something would fill them up, not with wine, but with strength where there was none. Serenity where there never had been any before.

They wouldn’t quite call that something God. Not yet anyway. I would, but they wouldn’t. And that’s okay. I’m not sure that the groom at the wedding in Cana ever figured out exactly what had happened either. All he knew is he had more wine.

But the reality for me is this: we all, regularly, know what it is to run out of wine at the worst possible time. We are all scraping the bottoms of our barrels in more ways than one. We are all facing shortages, physical and spiritual, and we are all afraid of losing more. And yet, we live. And often, we more than live, we thrive.

Whether we see it or not, whether we believe it or not, I think it’s because someone is filling us back up without us even knowing. I look back at the places in my life where I had absolutely nothing left in my own, and I see how even in that scarcity, God transformed nothing into a blessing. I have had my share of miracles, whether I know it or not. Whether I give God the glory or not. Whether I choose to believe it or not. The challenge for me is that when the steward comes back and says to me, “did you know all this wine was here? Where did all this good stuff come from?” That I don’t pretend that I’m somehow responsible for it. And that I don’t pretend like it just came from nowhere. That I open my eyes to the miracles around me.

I’ll close with this. Tomorrow is the day we observe Martin Luther King Day. As a college student in Atlanta, his hometown, I was always aware of his impact there. Some nights I would drive down to his old neighborhood, down to where his tomb is now, and I’d think about who he was, and how he did what he did. I would think about what it meant to have that kind of courage when everyday you knew there were people who literally wanted you dead. People who, in the end, got their wish. To keep on day after day like that is a miracle.

I think Martin Luther King was a great man. But what amazes me even more about his story is his faith. He was first and foremost a pastor, and more importantly, first and foremost a Christian. I have to believe that there were days when the wells were dry, and yet, someone filled him up again and again. He may have been a great man, but he believed in an even greater God. And in the end, I think that God worked miracles to fill him up again and again, and to keep him going when most of us would say “no way”. And throughout his life he gave the glory and the credit for that back to God.

You and I, we might not being making speeches on the Mall. We might not be inspiring social change on the level that he was. We might not be fearing for our lives everyday yet still moving forward. But we are all wrestling with our own fears. We are all pushing back against the voices that tell us there’s not enough. And we are all waiting for the miracles when our wells run dry. On this day I challenge you to do this: find the places where you have already been filled up. And then give God the glory. I promise you, your life will change because of it, and you will rarely be left with the fear of an empty glass again. Amen.

Hurricanes and Judgement: Thoughts on the One Year Anniversary of Irene

West Dover, Vermont

Tonight I’m watching Hurricane Isaac as it bears down on the Gulf Coast. Seven years after Katrina, Isaac has the potential to re-devastate an area that’s still recovering, and still will be for years.

I’m watching these developments as I read the results of a poll from the Public Religion Research Institute and the Religion News Service which shows that 44% of Americans see an uptick in natural disasters as “evidence of what the Bible calls the ‘end times’.” Narrow that polling body to white Christian evangelicals, and that number increases to 67%.

Right now I’m thinking about those two things as I sit in my living room in southern Vermont. One year ago tonight I sat here and called my congregational leaders and we reviewed the weather forecast and reluctantly decided to cancel church services the next day. By the middle of the next morning, Hurricane Irene had devastated the community where we live.

That night I stood with friends and neighbors and parishioners in a street filled with upended asphalt, twisted metal, and busted glass. I spent two years as a trauma chaplain in a pediatric hospital in Atlanta, but I had never seen devastation like I saw that night. It looked, quite literally, like a bomb had gone off.

The next Sunday I told my congregation that, contrary to what 44% of Americans think, God did not send the flood to our town as a punishment, a warning, or a judgement. I still believe that. Others do not. We’ve had our fair share of bad theology here in Vermont. Missionaries disguised as trauma counselors. Judgmental Christian “leaders” calling us to repent for the sins that caused the flood. Even the Westboro Baptist Church had us in their sights.

What’s sad is that some folks, the ones hardest hit and looking for answers, believe this Gospel of Wrath. Bad theology is often the second wave of trauma. And the Christian leaders who perpetuate these ideas move from natural disaster to natural disaster, tragedy to tragedy, spreading the same rhetoric of judgement. From Vermont to Aurora, Colorado to western wildfires, to Oak Creek, Wisconsin, to midwestern droughts, to every other place you can name where blood was shed or destruction widespread, those voices of warning have followed, jockeying for airtime. They have somehow become the predominant public voices of Christian faith.

It’s really too bad they don’t stay around long in one place. Because if they did, they might actually catch a glimpse of God.

Those of us who stuck around past the news cameras and soundbites saw incredible testaments to the love and grace of God. We saw it as good people took seriously the idea that one should “love their neighbor as themselves” and got to work. Some were Christians. Some weren’t. But all behaved in a way much closer to the way Christ commanded us to live than anyone on TV talking about God’s judgment coming in the form of a hurricane.

The people here wasted little time before rebuilding. The next morning they donned masks and bandanas, picked up cleaning buckets and got to work. They cooked meals for the shelter in the high school cafeteria. They gave hours as volunteer firefighters and rescue personnel. They staffed the food pantry in town every day for weeks. And they gave and gave of every resource they had until it hurt.

They didn’t do it for a day. Or a week. Or a month or season. They kept doing it, day after day, no matter what was happening in their own lives. People I knew who had lost almost everything came asking who had it worse, and what they could do for them.

That’s where I saw God this past year. That’s where I saw grace. And that’s where I saw hope.

Tomorrow we will gather at that same place we did last year, at the same time, as the sun goes down here in southern Vermont. But this year the road is repaved, the glass is swept up, and the river has contained itself to its banks once more. We will light candles, and we will offer our memories. But more that that, we will offer our gratitude. Gratitude for strangers, gratitude for one another, gratitude for grace. And more than all of that, we will offer our hope.

I know God will be there tomorrow, because I know that wherever there is hope, there is God. And while the flood “was”, God “is”, and God will be.

God will be there on the Gulf Coast tomorrow too. And God will be there if that storm makes landfall. Not because God wills our destruction, but because God does not abandon us in the storm. And no matter what happens, God will be there in the aftermath.

My hope is that wherever the news cameras flock to next, whether it’s in the wake of the storm or, God forbid, the aftermath of another act of violence, that we will look for testaments to God’s love and grace, and not the destructive voices of those who would use Christ’s name to spread their own judgements.

You know that old song, “They will know we are Christians by our love?” It’s still true. More than ever, and especially in times of destruction or pain. And if you can’t hold the statements of a Christian talking head on TV up to that standard, then don’t allow them to be the only voice out there that is speaking for God. Lives, and hearts, depend on it.

The Dove and the Olive Leaf…a year later: Sermon for the one year anniversary of Hurricane Irene

Genesis 8:6-12

6 At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made 7 and sent out the raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. 8 Then he sent out the dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; 9 but the dove found no place to set its foot, and it returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took it and brought it into the ark with him. 10 He waited another seven days, and again he sent out the dove from the ark; 11 and the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. 12 Then he waited another seven days, and sent out the dove; and it did not return to him any more.

A year ago this week, on Saturday night, I spoke with the leaders of both churches about the hurricane that had been predicted for the next day. We talked about the weather forecast, and about canceling church services, and we agreed that probably nothing out of the ordinary would really happen. But we canceled anyway, just to be safe.

You know what happened next. A year ago, on a Sunday like today, it felt like the whole world had come crashing in. The river crested, and then spilled its banks, and the destruction was beyond what we could have ever imagined.

I remember seeing many of you that day. You were opening the evacuation shelters. You were working with police and fire and rescue. You were here in Dover or up in Wardsboro. Or you were there when we all finally made it down to the middle of Wilmington and saw the way the river had cut through town.

Some of you took big losses. Your businesses. Your homes. Your sense of safety. In many cases you didn’t have electricity or plumbing for days. And that day I think we all wondered whether life would ever be the same again.

The Sunday afterwards, we gathered here at the church and we read this same passage from Genesis. I had already heard by that point people who said the flood was God’s judgement on us. I heard someone say this was just God reminding us what God can do. I told you then, and I’ll tell you again today, I don’t believe that’s true.

The text we read then, and read now, is about the aftermath of a flood too. And while the flood in the Bible is attributed to God, I don’t want anyone to think I’m saying that this one was too. But I like this text, because it reminds us of the promise God makes in the aftermath of a flood. A promise given so long ago, and a promise given to us.

I believe the flood “was”. But I believe even more that God “is”.

Noah sends a dove out after the flood looking for dry land. It searches, and searches, and finds nowhere. And it comes back to him. And for seven days it stays there with Noah. But seven days later he sends it out again. It the world is not yet back to normal, but there is enough of what used to be there that the dove plucks and olive leaf, and brings it back.

Last year we talked about that olive leaf. That first sign that there was life again. That sign that the world could be rebuilt, even if, like the dove, we could not yet put our feet on solid ground again.

We came that day to claim an olive leaf. And we did. We found our signs of hope, and we went out and we did what needed to be done. And now, a year later, we have stories  of all the olive leaves we have found to share.

There are three things I’ve been thinking about this week: remembrance, gratitude, and hope.

First, we remember. We remember what that day was like. We remember how we felt when the full extent of what was happening became clear. We remember all the destruction and all the shock and all the high water marks. We remember the young woman who was killed on Route 100. And we remember all of those whose lives were changed in such unforgettable ways.

But that’s not all we remember. And this is where our memory turns us to gratitude. Because we also remember what happened next.

People tell me that they have never seen a community bounce back the way this one did. In fact, people say Vermont’s recovery as a whole has been spectacular. The day after the flood, bright and early, neighbors started helping neighbors to rebuild. They pumped water out of stores. They hammered things into place. They moved trees and rocks and earth. And they staffed the food pantry everyday. They kept the shelter open at the high school. They brought water to people who didn’t have it.

Our church, our churches at that point, did what they could too. We kept the doors of the churches open for those who needed to pray or rest. We opened our doors to 12 step groups who had been displaced. We gave out water and energy bars. We helped to organize a diaper drive. We drove in health buckets and school kits from Church World Service. We opened the doors of the Wilmington Church to St. Mary’s who had lost their building. And the basement of the Wilmington church even became storage for the food pantry.

The fact so many came out to help their neighbors, and that we got to have some part in that, is a cause for gratitude.

And it doesn’t stop there. Strangers came to help too. They came from all over and they brought water and food and tools. They joined with us and they gave their time and talents over the next weeks to help us rebuild. Likewise, our national denomination, the United Church of Christ, remembered us too. Within days of the flood they had sent grants to both of the churches to help us to help respond to the needs that arose in our area. Over the past year we have used those funds to help out local families and non-profits, and we will continue using them as we begin new ministries here.

And through the year the blessings kept coming. These are just some of the stories I know. But I know you know a hundred more. I know that none of us has been unmoved by what happened here. And I know that God has been good to us. Things may not yet be completely “back to normal”, but we have come so far from those first days. And we have come that far because of the grace that has been given to us. Our gratitude for our neighbors, and for strangers, and for the grace of God can never be buried.

And so now, a year later, we meet in worship again. And we read the same passage. The passage about the dove who brings Noah the olive leaf. And this year we read a little more of it. We read not just about that dove coming back after severn days, but we read about that dove going out again.

This time Noah sends the dove out, but it does not return. The dove goes out and sees that the world is safe again. It is returning to normal. And it finds places where it can land and live and thrive. It doesn’t have to go back to its emergency quarters on the ship. It’s free.

The dove symbolizes peace in the Christian tradition. More importantly, we equate it with the Holy Spirit. And for us, the Holy Spirit means hope. If you think about the dove that way, think about what this story means. First the dove brings back a tangible sign of hope to us, just as we began to receive last year. And then, the dove goes out into the world, unbound by the flood any more, spreading that hope to everyone.

We can do two things now. We can stay in the boat, or we can follow that dove, that symbol of the Holy Spirit, out into the world and in this second year of recovery we can continue to help to bring hope to our community and beyond.

We have done so much in this past year. And it has been good. But there is still so much that needs to be done in our community. And God is equipping us to do it.

Where will the Holy Spirit lead us this year? And are we willing to follow it? I believe we are. And I believe we will. And I believe that a year from now our community will continue to emerge stronger and with more hope than ever.

I’ll close with this. Last summer I baptized the infant daughter of one the families in our community in the Deerfield River. They live on the river, and wanted to baptism to be done with the water that they love. So we waded in, took water from the river, and poured it on her head and welcomed her to the family of faith. It was a beautiful day in a beautiful place.

It was not long after that day that the same river flooded, and changed life as we knew it.

But yesterday I stood in that same river again, this time with their infant son. And again, we baptized him with that water. Baptism is the ultimate sign of new life. And now that river that caused so much destruction can again be a symbol of God’s hope for us. God’s new life. It was a reminder for me that God can turn everything into good again, and God can give us hope in the most unexpected places.

And it was also a reminder that God has more for us to do. This year, what will God transform in our community? What will God transform in you? And what will God find to use to give us all hope. If we keep our eyes, and our hearts, and our hands, open, we won’t miss it when the Holy Spirit decides to use us again.

If we keep our eyes open for those olive leaves that God has offered up for us, if we follow that dove out into the world to the places God is leading us, we will never go wrong. God’s hope is here for the claiming, last year, this year, and for all the years to come. Amen.